On the surface The Waiting Room, Lisa Loomer’s dark comedy presented by Wellesley College Theatre, is about the practice/torture of Chinese foot-binding, the charming Victorian custom of corseting, and that most modern of body morphs, breast implants. All are ways women have sought to make themselves more attractive to men, all can make a girl lose her very self, or become downright physically unhealthy, which are the deeper themes the play explores through its commentary on the politics of pretty and the consequences of compartmentalization. Directed by Nora Hussey, and played to a sold-out house at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, the play ended its successful run last Sunday.
Picture a room where three women sit, each from a different century, all waiting to hear those apparently timeless words, “The doctor will see you now.” Forgiveness from Heaven, played with humor and a housewife’s shrewdness and practicality by Wellesley College senior Christine de Jesus Ahsan, is an 18th-century Chinese woman. Her problem: her feet were bound as a child, re-formed through pain, blood, and pus into erotic objects designed to please the husband to whom she was promised. But as she sees it, that was just her mother’s way of making sure she married well. The real problem for Forgiveness is that after all that work, she’s losing a toe, and that just won’t do in the bedroom. It sort of ruins that de rigueur lotus flower look. The loss of an actual part of her body is almost an aside, since her mincing steps won’t be significantly shortened without the toe. The real problem is the lost eroticism, gone with the digit. Pity Forgiveness’ husband, who is completely sexually turned off by such a turn. After all, those feet belong mostly to him.
Victoria is a nineteenth-century woman, her waist coaxed with a corset into an impressively tiny 16″. Victoria has been diagnosed with hysteria. Victoria’s books have been taken away from her. Victoria has been given the rest cure, it’s reliance on the withholding of all intellectual and social stimulation nearly enough to drive her mad. She bites people. She sneezes. The sneezing becomes especially pronounced after she and her husband have marital relations, which seem none too enjoyable or even consensual. Oh well, after having a couple of ovaries removed and a nice hospital stay, she was just about as right as rain, but all too soon it was time to go home. It seems, her husband reported, that in her absence their young daughter had started sneezing rather often. He couldn’t say why. In her first production at Wellesley, junior Maggie Lees allows the audience to see Victoria’s inherent spirit and intellect beneath all that corseting and indoctrination, as well as her very real fear that her daughter is in great danger from daddy dearest.
Then there’s Wanda. Leave it to a Jersey girl to be tough but sensitive. She’s brassy, she’s outspoken, and thanks to silicone implants, she’s got big boobs. The boobs she’s always loved and used to her best advantage. It’s the recent diagnosis of breast cancer that she can do without. She doesn’t currently have a man in her life and her health insurance situation is dicey, but don’t tell Wanda what’s best for Wanda. She’ll decide that for herself, thanks very much. Wellesley College junior Juliette Bellacosa, who is carrying a double major in Art History and French, made the audience look beyond the double D’s her character carried and drew us into Wanda’s inner heart, a place where Wanda herself rarely ventured. Wanda was the character who changed the most, and Bellacosa showed us her courage, fear, sense of loss, and empathetic nature hiding beneath all that swagger and loud desperation.
The men in the play — husbands, doctors, and health industry executives — are duplicitous, conniving, manipulative, greedy, and as hysterical as the women they accuse of being so. One doctor is able to show what looks like empathy toward Wanda, but you wonder if it’s only because he, too, has been recently diagnosed with cancer. So does it even count as empathy, or is it really just empathy’s empty, copycat cousin, mirroring? Meanwhile, Forgiveness is left in the hospital literally to rot, her husband coming to visit her only in her dreams.
The set designs by David Towlun, three-time recipient of the NH Theatre Award for Best Scenic Design, were simple and spare, in contrast to the complicated lives of the three women. Hospital curtains, running on a simple ceiling track system, were whisked open to dramatize spilled secrets, and drawn to keep prying eyes from seeing everything that was going on back there, on the operating table, on the settee, in the examining room. The curtains at once obscured facts and revealed truths, their back and forth and brisk whoosh as they ran along the tracking lending a clinical air to the most private of moments in the play.
It was a dark comedy that never dared lighten up. How could it when taking on female subjugation and body shame, male privilege, and big pharma? The laughs were there, nonetheless, but The Waiting Room wasn’t written as a vehicle for laughs. Original and witty, Lisa Loomer’s The Waiting Room brought the audience into centuries of realization (horror?) that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Directed by Nora Hussey; sets by David Towlun; costumes by Chelsea Kerl; lighting by Bridget Collins; sound by George Cooke; stage manager Jaime Zhang; Choreography by Cordelia Zhong.
With: Maggie Lees (Victoria); Christine de Jesus Ahsan (Forgiveness from Heaven); Juliette Bellacosa (Wanda); Danny Bolton, Member of Actor’s Equity Assoc., (Douglas); John Kinsherf, Member of Actor’s Equity Assoc., (Larry); Jamaal Eversley (Ken); Woody Gaul, Member of Actor’s Equity Assoc., (Oliver); Yu Jin Ko (Blessing From Heaven); Kyiah Ashton (Brenda).
Ensemble: Alexandra Beem, Electra Carzis, Emma Johnson, Alexandra Shook, Joyce Wang, Maia Zelkind